As promised to friends – a simple real-time account of a walk I am undertaking in preparation for the imminent uprising in Europe and final storming of Constantinople by Christian forces (I am in need of exercise). No room for a fancy prose style while I’m still on the road, I’m afraid. Each new post costs me dear, because I inevitably have to buy a coffee to get wi-fi. The basic idea is that I’m walking from Rome to Mount Athos.
On Friday, I met Gianni – a friend of my parents and various monks of an ascetic Roman Catholic Monastic Order which is receiving one of my younger brothers. Gianni went over the basics of entry to Mount Athos and outlined who I should speak to in which monasteries should I manage to get there.
Saturday, I met an old friend for breakfast. She has returned from California to work at a hospital in her native Budapest, but was visiting Italy to help her father sell locks at at a Bologna trade fair. The situation in Hungary is worth a small comment here. The small, landlocked Carpathian nation has just held a referendum to decide whether or not they should allow more migrants in. The Hungarians voted almost unanimously that they should not, but on a less than a fifty per-cent turnout. I was in Budapest in July and already the place was fluttering with banners, warning of the catastrophe that has already befallen Germany. Another friend of mine there, incensed by the propaganda, ran up and down her street tearing the posters down, only to discover they were up again within a few days. Both these girls seem fervently anti the moderately conservative administration that has bought such prosperity to their land (my home for six months nearly a decade ago), yet both – when I pressed them – abstained from the vote entirely (one did turn up at the polling station, but drew a flower across her ballot).
Why? The best rationalisation I heard was ‘we were protesting against the fact that this subject was put to a referendum.’ hm! Fair enough – but I’ll try to summarise what I think is really going on here.
It seems to me that what has Happened in Hungary and is about to happen in the rest of Europe is that a point of stasis has been reached in which a vote for the status quo or for stability is obviously no longer viable, and so women (who rarely vote to rock the boat), have taken a back seat and allowed men to run things. Expect to see a lot of this in the coming months and years. As credit culture collapses, a polarisation is emerging wherein a new brand of conservatism is supported overwhelmingly and in every Western nation one can examine (particularly the USA and Austria), by men. Women are either still desperately clinging to Socialism or resigning themselves to fate (as has happened in Hungary).
Which brings me to lunch with Torquil Dick-Erickson and his wife. Conversation chez Dick-Erickson revolves around the efforts to create a single European state, and especially legal system. This time, of course, we were able to celebrate another recent referendum that heralds the glorious rise of nations. Following a terrible miscarriage of justice he observed, Torquil’s bete noir is the European Arrest Warrant – indeed a terrible structure that puts the subjects of the most just states at the mercy of the most appalling inquisitional systems this side of Moscow. The case which we talk about the most I cannot even name here because the incarcerated victim is threatened with further punishment should civil action be taken to protest. In the entirely unironic words of an Italian lawyer: ‘we work out who is in charge and we do what they want.’
That is the fatalistic attitude, which blights civil society, we have imported from the Continent. I first saw it illustrated in a Viennese coffeehouse. A Mont Blanc pen rolled across a table at which a group of my friends were playing cards, and clattered to the floor. I bent to pick it up.
‘leave it!’ Said the seminarian as the physicist played his round. ‘It cannot fall any further.’
We spoke about too much to put in here about the curious nature of European apathy, but the take-away theme to ponder comes from the the Italian novel I Promesi Sposi, ‘The Betrothed.’
‘If you don’t have courage, you can’t acquire it.’
So much of what lies beneath the coming convolution of Civilisation (and, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rightly said – there is only one; the European one), will present itself as either an inertia or a rebellion in the face of this postulation. This goes for governments, churches, armies and so forth.
I walked North, the affluent suburbs giving way to dilapidated Classical buildings with cables exposed through chipped plaster. Every lamp post was cast with a laurel wreath motif, every man-hole cover stamped with the SPQR. The pavements became more uneven as the sky darkened – the dense canopies of Stone Pines silhouetted like puffs of cumulus on flailing, Dali-esque limbs. Saturday night: the neighbourhood was becoming what Shoreditch thinks it is as the cafes filled and spilled out through iron railings and onto the roads. I reached Milvian Bridge by following two students who were going to a nightclub nearby, crossing this fantastic Deco bridge to the North of the Tiber then heading into the bright suburb of Milvio.
Has anywhere ever made refinement look more wild? I was agog at the excellence with which my generation of Roman girls pull off a sombre flamboyance at their cafe tables; the men moving with slow, introverted confidence from Piaggio to bar and there to stand like the city’s ancient statues in all countenance and posture, casually flicking a thumb across the glowing screen of the latest i-phone. I inherited from my late grandmother a great fondness for people at the bottom of the pile (indeed, I recently learned – to my great excitement – that there exist state support programmes for people who have neither had a job, nor a certificate of higher education, nor come from a family where anybody else has. Tell me where Parker can put the Rolls and I’ll go in to collect the cash!), but even if I hadn’t, I could have spent all evening gawping at those on display in the farthest reaches of Rome’s north suburbs.
As I was in town, I looked for a Hotel, but they were all full. A concierge directed me to a camp-site on the outskirts. The bus passed through an astounding district of dead-lit white marble Fascist era Stadium and several administrative buildings, including a vast obelisk bearing the legend:
M V S S O L I N I
The brutal stamp of Il Duce’s architects on the cityscape was interrupted only by the arching branches of Pines or a stray Cypress, adding a stray smudge of rich green to the brilliant contours. It’s so heartening to see a country that still takes pride in hits history. Such style! Such glory! To think of what we have sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.
I alighted the bus at a remote junction at eleven and was then lost – standing in the cold at a lonely highway intersection. The narrow pavement on each side of the motorway led only to industrial depots, bolted up for the night and a petrol station – also closed. It had started to drizzle. I wandered around until about midnight trying to find this camp site and eventually heard voices speaking in English (Surrey accent, to be precise). I pitched my tent in darkness, and slept badly for about five hours.
Milvian Bridge looked very different in the grey light of the morning. The often rebuilt, narrow pedestrian thoroughfare that is arguably the site of Europe’s conversion to Christianity, bares little indication of its significance. A little rubbish littered the pavement before the archway. A single tower gradually being consumed by Ivy.
Rome would still have been shimmering in the far distance when Constantine crossed here to march on Maxentius along what is now Via Flaminia.
I had intended to reach the Cistine Chapel before nine but, once at Via Della Conciliazione, where coaches were belching thousands of pilgrims in ponchos and sandals – a few with their grandchildren in tow, I was told that one has to book in advance to attend mass in the Vatican.
‘Never mind’ – I thought, as I looked at the people there.
So my hike began with confession at Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and mass at the Pantheon, during which I fell asleep several times and dreamed, bizarrely, that I was taking part in a pagan festival which seemed surprisingly like a Catholic mass. When it came to the sign of peace, I realised that the girl next to me had one of those lesbianic blue hairdos and the old lady on her other side (who took the collection), told her it was beautiful. Maybe that was part of the dream. I don’t know.
Then I pressed on through the city to Porta Maggiore and out into the countryside.
Although, har har, it took a bit longer than I thought and the road – Via Prenestina – is absolutely dire. It is lined with ghastly sink-estates and inbred people – 0ne of whom gave me slightly iff directions which cause me to go off piste (which turned out not to be a bad thing, because there is was no pavement on much of my intended route). Like an undiscovered terrace of purgatory, developed for people with petty commercial interests, I passed endless endless depots and warehouses stamped, curiously, with Chinese writing.
It took all day before I was in what could be termed ‘countryside,’ and, finding a small bar in a village somewhere (I’m still not sure where), was directed to a spot where I might pitch my tent. With the fading light, I had just enough time to cook supper and was asleep by seven.
Then, of course, I woke at three. Now you see the problem of travelling without an artificial light source. After a twilight breakfast, I set off again, but relaised that today (Monday), was looking to be a repeat of yesterday. The road I had picked looked small on the map – but in reality it had no pavement, so I was walking along the verge of a minor artery as lorries roared past. Occasionally I would find a smaller road and take it – trying to keep the sun between Nine and Twelve in the Morning and Twelve and three in the afternoon to ensure I was going in about the right direction. In this way, I did pass lots of tiny farms where the old Nonnas were sitting outside selling the surplus grape harvest from wooden boxes and giving me a bunch for free for some reason (they all want to know where I am going – even at the checkouts in remote supermarkets). I also met two men who were raking an Olive tree and bade me take a handful of their crop. I never knew how bitter olives taste when they come form the tree.
Alas, though, the small roads tended to loop back on to the main ones, and herein lies the problem: because all these little farms supply towns, and because the prettiest fortress towns grew up while Italy was in a constant state of war with itself, they are all connected to arterial roads but not to each other.
My assumption that one could just walk down the country on winding lanes (as you could in a stable country like England), has been shattered. I am already behind schedule and if I am to get to see anything except for motorway verges strewn with empty bottles and used condoms, I shall have to swallow my pride and supplement my daily walking with bus rides.
It’s a pretty humiliating thing to admit to oneself after just two days of trudging along motorways – but the thing I set out to do isn’t actually a thing. Italy – and more important – my plan, has been completely trashed by the arrival of the motorcar on the highways.
And what the hell is it with the used condoms anyway? I mean, yes, okay – in lay-byes perhaps, (where they are indeed piled up in scenes evocative of a certain biblical mountain), but honestly – along the actual motorway? I mean, is this the reason behind all the little crosses in memorandum of young men around here?
As a Roman Catholic public school boy, I have a curious relationship with Condoms. I knew, for instance, that they could be used to cover up smoke detectors in dormitories before their real purpose became apparent to me at the age of 19, when I went out to Ecuador and was told that I should ‘learn how to use this,’ by my boss. I still have it in my wash bag and intend upon establishing it as a family heirloom. My mean capitalist mind immediately started to play with slogans for the high-end contraceptive range. You never really own a Satin Durex – you merely look after it for the next generation.
This evening I arrived, after endless false turnings, at Zagarolo. A town I had never heard of. It emerged at the bottom of a deep and verdant valley – perched high on its needle of rock. It’s pretty (sorry – more adjectives when I’m not so tired). I staggered up a winding road, through the mediaeval gates and into the high street where located the town butcher and bought a small steak.
‘Due Euro cinquanta,’ said the butcher’s assistant.
‘ma dai, due Euro,’ rumbled his capo. I must look like I’ve come through hell already.
Then I went to a small bar and started writing this and then realised it was too dark to find anywhere to pitch the tent – so I’m in an extremely nice youth hostel called Wiki Hostel. Well above budget. But d’ya know what? They have sold me a better and more detailed map of Italy than I have found anywhere else – and it was worth it just for that. Now I’m flaking. Over the next month, I hope to find a balance which will allow time to read, walk and write.